The Time is Now: Address the Complex Trauma Experienced by State-Sanctioned Murder

On June 12, 2020, Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back in front of Wendy’s in Atlanta, GA the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martlin Luther King jr was born there and Rayshard Brooks was murdered there by Atlanta police.

Setting buildings on fire is a “fight” response to the complex trauma experienced because of state-sanctioned murder. To help us recognize the manifestations of complex trauma that we are seeing in Black communities, I turn to my friend, my sister, Babalwa Kwanele, MS, LMFT. Recently, I sat down with Kwanele. She explains how complex trauma impacts the mind and the body. She also provides us with concrete advice for ways to address the trauma that is terrorizing us every day. The full interview can be heard in episode one of the (Un)Hidden Voices Podcast available on YouTube.

Me: I reached out to Sister Babalwa. We’ve been talking about this for a long time and I sent her a text message. The text said, “Today.” I think it was like seven o’clock in the morning. “The time is now!” We’ve been talking about it forever. We have a lot of common experiences. And I felt like we just need to get it out there. No time like the present.

Kwanele: That’s right.

Me: The first thing I want is for you to tell us about yourself.

Kwanele: Okay. I’ll start with myself meaning my name. Babalwa Kwanele. A name that is from South Africa. Babalwa means someone who is blessed and Kwanele is a South African expression that says, “I’ve had enough. I need to change things.” That’s what my name means. I am a child of community activists. My mother is a community activist. My father was a Civil Rights activist with CORE.

Me: You have to tell us about CORE.

Kwanele: Council of Racial Equality, which was back in the 60s. He continued activism. He was a vet of the Korean War. And my mother looked at more of the local issues and issues within schools. So I was raised by activists and my thinking is activism. And my father passed away as a Muslim about 10 years ago. And I converted to Islam about 20 years ago, 25 something like that. I’m framing most of this in activism because I think that’s where we’re kind of leading into. I’m a therapist, and I’m trained specifically in trauma in multi-generational trauma, PTSD, the whole complex trauma all of it, and trained in cultural awareness.

Me: Okay (A curfew alert makes a sharp piercing horn sound through my mobile phone interrupting our conversation). So this is state-sanctioned violence. Do you hear that?

Kwanele: Yes.

Me: My alert is going off traumatizing me because (I read aloud from my cell phone) “A mandatory San Francisco Citywide curfew from 8 pm to 5 am all in San Francisco must stay home during these hours only exceptions are first responders, essential employees, people seeking medical attention, and people experiencing homelessness.” So if you’re houseless you don’t have to stay home, but everybody else is supposed to stay home.

This is traumatic.

Kwanele: Yes.

Me: And this is another reason why we need to start talking today because this is just so evident. We’re talking about trauma and then this fricking buzzer goes off on my cell phone.

Kwanele: And that’s traumatizing. I am the sister of a brother that’s one of the essential workers in San Francisco. I talked to him briefly today and he’s on his way to San Francisco. If he’s not there already. What about them?

Me: Can you explain the difference between PTSD and complex PTSD?

Kwanele: Yes. PTSD, it’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was found during one of the very early wars in terms of seeing soldiers when they returned home from the battlefield. They displayed patterns of behavior it used to be called “shell shock.” It was changed from shell shock to PTSD. PTSD is a mental health disorder where the body and the mind, whether real or imagined, maybe you experienced it, or you watched it, or you saw it, or you learned about it. The body begins to react with trauma. It’s really the body’s need to survive something that is overwhelming. It kicks into this mode to need to survive negative events whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual.

The memories are scattered throughout the brain into different sensory parts of the brain. That experience stays alive. There are several people who really look further into this like Dr. Joy Degruy, Dr.Tony Jackson, and Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. For people who have been assaulted daily, which is what we are, or death by a million cuts. We then move into something called “complex trauma.” It’s no longer post because it is present. It’s happening now.

This means that people are born into this complex trauma. People develop it over time from childhood through all of your developmental stages in life. There are the traumatic experiences that shape who the folks are.

Complex trauma is impacting our health, our ability to learn. It impacts the wholeness of the person.

Me: So how is complex trauma impacting Black people’s responses to these state-sanctioned murders?

Babalwa: There are many responses, “fight, flight, or freeze.” It goes back to our basic human nature.

Fight. Many of us come out fighting. There’s only one way out of this horrible situation. I need to fight to survive. That’s what we’re seeing in our communities.

We’re seeing mixed reactions trying to get out of this traumatic situation. We’re seeing some of our people fighting, We’re seeing some of our people frozen paralyzed because of the protracted abuse that we’ve been enduring, Some of our people are trying to organize and you see some of our people getting more physically sick. You see other parts of our people dying.

People are feeling angry, but not being able to express that anger or point that anger into the direction of where it needs to go. Some are confused in terms of not knowing.

Flight.That helpless feeling, “I don’t know what to do. The problem is so massive so huge. I feel helpless. What can I do?” Some are retracting inward to our families like I have to protect my core, my family. This intruder may come into my home. And you know what, you’re right. Because the intruder may come into your home because they want what you have.

Freeze. For instance, if you’re watching a cat and mouse game, the mouse will stand still and will freeze. Why didn’t the cat get the mouse? The cat has a pounce response that the mouse knows about. If I freeze and standstill, the cat’s pounce response is not activated.

Me: I said the time is now because nothing’s promised right? I started tearing up because you said our people are dying. The reality is if we’re dying as a result of this, we can’t fix it. Once the person is dead, we cannot fix that. So we need to do it now. We need to stop this. We need to address this now so that we can save lives. This is my last question. How do we support ourselves? And how should we support ourselves?

Kwanele: That’s a piece of what happens with the trauma response and people have gotten to the point, any human will get to the point where they have had enough.

Me: Yeah.

Kwanele: I think one is to acknowledge the pain. And when we do acknowledge the hurt the pain and the challenges and the hardships.

We also need to frame our minds to be solution-focused. When we think about the pain, we think about the horror and the terror that we’re going through because we’re being terrorized right now.

What happened to George Floyd was torture. It was murder, but it was also torture before he was murdered. There is daily life torture in our communities, in our lives, and even that’s going on in our own minds.

Our own bodies are responding to the torture. So when we think of that, we also need to think about hope. Think about a way out. What are some solutions?

Find some practical solutions, some things that we can do collectively to move out of this. Think of a circle that has all different points. But the main thing is the point in the middle.

For Muslims, I think of Hajj, the holy pilgrimage, and in the middle of that is our Kabbah, right? No matter which direction you pray, you’re facing toward the Kabbah. You come, right, left, center, whatever it is, so long as you’re facing towards that Kabbah toward that center point. You are facing a collective direction. We will meet in the center.

It will take all of us every last one of us to pull through and to make it through this and be sustainable.

The key is sustainability. What are some sustainable solutions? No matter how small, please don’t think that something as too small. You know, making yourself a garden on your front porch. Maybe that’s all that you have and all that you can do. You’ve done something. You take kids and you help a kid plant a seed in the soil, even if you’re in an apartment building.

There are some of us that are political activists that work with political groups and communities. And more than anything is the element of human kindness for our brother and sister that looks like us to have that aspect that foundation of that human kindness.

Understand that together we will make it through this and we will continue to survive.

Me: Thank you.

Kwanele: Thank you

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